Just as the duo in the cult classic Dude, Where’s My Car retrace their steps to recover their car after a night of recklessness, many city and municipal leaders unwittingly embark on place branding and find themselves struggling after the fact, asking themselves where did they go so wrong. This is understandable, since there are few branding and design exercises more complex, emotional or that directly impact communities and individuals.
The pitfalls generally fall into two categories: failure to embrace their constituents for real input end up experiencing a backlash with a community revolt (check out: Don’t Mess with the People’s Brand, Man!) and secondly, starting off with a good consultative process but ending with poor brand design and implementation.
The key is to connect these two activities: solid research and consultation followed up with an authentic brand strategy, great design and consistent implementation. The latter comes with understanding the technical elements of brand execution across all of its potential media touch points, where a wrong turn can cost the city thousands and even millions of dollars in lost revenue, printing, unnecessary complexity, challenges in managing business forms and documents, miscommunication and general confusion, inefficiency and dissatisfaction.
Remarkably, local ‘artists’ or the general public are often asked to submit speculative ‘logos’ as if that is where the branding process starts and ends. The intention is that this is an economical solution and it involves public participation and this is often the full extent of the engagement process. However, the requirements of a place brand are demanding.
Unlike a brand for a product or a company, place brands serve a broad variety of stakeholders and audiences. A strong brand is flexible and versatile and may need to work for tourism, business development and target specific sectors. And it needs to do so without dilution, in the process of trying to be all things to all people. This is a challenging balance to strike and one that is unique to the business of place branding.
In the wrong hands, of those without the technical experience of how graphic elements translate over the complete spectrum of media requirements, an identity and branding programme can utterly fail. Furthermore, without the knowledge and expertise of creative brand application design, many place brands inevitably end up being shallow and rubber-stamped “solutions” that fall short of engaging stakeholders, creating interest in a place as destination, and become a money pit throughout the production cycle.
Current technology provides an opportunity to empower individuals and harness interactive thinking among communities that share and form the brand. One such tool is PlaceSpeak, a location-based community consultation platform. PlaceSpeak's online geo-targeting tool gathers instant, accurate, qualified & defensible participant data.
Other methods may involve town hall settings, either online, by telephone or on location arranged through events. While physical stakeholder meetings can be challenging to arrange and may reduce the sampling of participants, the quality of engagement, feedback and live interaction is a big upside.
In the development phase of stakeholder engagement the types of activities may entail a range of SWOT analyses, goal-setting and simply gathering anecdotal information such as pain points within the community. While the business community, for example through BIA’s and chambers of commerce, may often be sought for advice and opinions, in our experience a more representative and rich set of data and input is attained by involving a spectrum of private citizens, farmers, workers and front-line city staff for example.
This all helps set up the research and strategy for ideation and execution to happen, but engaging the community post-launch is equally important for a brand to be sustainable.
The design of a place brand is a creative and engineering problem suited to specialists in place brand design with a strong studio-based expertise, consisting of graphic design specialists. While local artists and design professionals (as well as the general public) are all strong candidates in the public consultation process, it is critical to engage the services of those who have expertise in the visual design and technical execution of place brands.
It is remarkable that some towns and municipalities still feel that it is OK to have a logo contest, or that identities derived from banners or t-shirts are an acceptable branding method. It is important to note that, whereas there may be merit in involving a place brand strategist or research firm to provide public consultation services, it is equally important to ensure that there is a high level of engagement with the design firm early on in the process in order to establish the foundation for good design to happen.
Why? The myriad brand touch points and media requirements are increasingly complex. Likewise, the audience is more sophisticated, international and design literate. The benchmark has been significantly raised in terms of what is an acceptable design standard. Hiring a professional design firm to execute a brand is key, in particular one with a strong studio component that exhibits creative potential and variety in their approach to place branding solutions.
Furthermore, without the appropriate production values recommended by the design firm, a place brand will be as flimsy as the paper it is printed on. Poorly constructed “template” websites and those with a questionable CMS become a time-sapping experience for administrators with a brand bludgeoning result. Signage and wayfinding is another area that cities and municipalities often struggle with, whether it is with the civic signage programme itself, or the bylaws and guidelines that are used to manage businesses at street level.
This cycles us back to the importance of continuity, where the research and interactive engagement flows through to the brand design and implementation, including the various delivery technologies, from printing to web and social media.
Finally, it is important to note that in place branding the development and management of the brand is decentralized and informal. Generally in municipalities there are no ‘corporate marketing departments’ that are empowered to control all aspects of the brand. Place branding requires coordination and collaboration as much after launch as during development.
The power of place branding, done well, involves the recognition and ability to reciprocally engage stakeholders and audiences, rather than seeing it simply as an outward communications project. Providing an opportunity to empower individuals and harness interactive thinking among communities that share and form the brand is key. For example, the City of Vancouver website [link: Vancouver.ca case study] enables the various neighborhoods that comprise the city to have a significant presence and input, which lends personality and individuality to the region as a whole.
To be clear, this is not just about deflecting community concern, but rather it is intrinsic to the brand’s sustainability to involve and seek public collaboration. Other methods employed by the City of Vancouver, common to other jurisdictions as well, include car-free days in key commercial districts like Commercial Drive and 4th Avenue or Main Street during festivals and events. On a smaller scale block parties with road closures help to galvanize communities, and these kinds of grass-root activities help to support a regional brand.
Connecting the dots, from research and collaboration to implementation and promoting brand participation in the final phase, is an exciting opportunity for place brand managers. The potential to positively impact a region is massive, and design has become the method of choice for savvy civic leadership. It is not necessary to create a homogenous city or municipality, where most advantages lie in the unique character, social and cultural texture of a region.
The opportunity lies in encouraging participation at all levels and all phases of a brand’s life cycle in order to maximize the impact on a community’s social, cultural, environmental and economic vitality. These efforts must be supported with good design execution at every interface. Good branding combined with good design is simply good governance.